Finding the Upside: How to identify opportunities in uncertain times and what founders should focus on right now

This is part of Antler's "Finding the Upside" series, aimed at supporting and empowering the entrepreneurial community during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Being a startup founder can be difficult at the best of times. Adding the stress and impact of a pandemic, crisis or recession, especially now, with the human tragedy of the Covid-19 doesn’t make it easier.

That aside, some of the largest and influential tech companies have succeeded off the back of a crisis. Consider the following tech businesses that launched, raised capital, and grew during the great recession that started in late 2008:

  • Dropbox US$6 million Series A, October 2008
  • Twilio US$600,000 seed, March 2009
  • Airbnb US$600,000 seed, April 2009
  • Uber US$250,000 seed, August 2009
  • Square US$10 million Series A, November 2009

That’s not all. In the US, new businesses sprouted at a rate of 60,000 a month in 2009 following the great financial crisis, compared to 40,000 a month in 2007, according to the Kaufmann Foundation’s Index of Entrepreneurial Activity.

Born from necessity, these businesses thrived despite uncertain financial headwinds and reduced business activity, and now they are some of the most well known brands in the world.

While we’re not minimising the impact Covid-19 is having on many industries and the resulting hardships it’s placing on individuals and their families, this article seeks to understand how founders can identify opportunities to innovate and stay focused when times are tough.

Be smart

Firstly, in the words of our CEO, Magnus Grimeland, “be smart”. It’s very clear by now that the spread of this virus is fast and aggressive. Above all, it’s of utmost importance that you and your teams stay on top of the latest health and safety advice.

Also, it’s more than likely that you’re already working remotely and you’ve had to make some adjustments, but should the situation worsen or a full lockdown is implemented in your area make sure the new processes you have in place are sustainable for you and your business. Find the new normal and have a backup plan.

If you’re anything like us, you would have spent the last couple of months saying things like “I wish there were more hours in the day,” or “… if only I had more time.” Well, now might be the time to tackle these things, while still focusing on what drives the company forward. As business slows down, it’s a great time to hit all the tasks you always plan to do but never quite had the time to do. During this time, a few other priorities to think about include:

  • Cash runway: We recommend keeping enough runway for at least 18 months. If you don’t think you’ll have enough, make sure you have a contingency plan and start thinking about what non-essential expenses the business can cut and function without. For example, if your team is small, do you still need an office space or can you go fully remote for the coming months or year? Similarly, focus your energy and time on what drives the business forward. Spend each cent in the best way possible. Hard times are great at increasing efficiency. Take this opportunity.
  • Killer product: Spend time on your product. Ask yourself questions such as what drives usage? Or what are features we can improve, what are barriers to growth? Maybe how can I improve unit economics or how can I improve the UI? During this time you may have more time to think thoughtfully about how you can set up for the next spurt of growth.
  • Grants and stimulus: Governments across the world are currently building and dispersing stimulus packages, and local councils and organisations are repurposing grants to boost their economic footing and help businesses stay afloat. Make sure you’re researching and applying if you’re eligible. The money is there to create growth, employment opportunities and impact the local community. Become part of the solution.
  • Structural solutions: Consider temporarily pivoting to cash generating activities, or in some cases, you can even consider structural solutions. For example, team up with a different company doing something similar to you and partner vertically. A good example of this is when Elon Musk merged his startup X.Com with Confinity during the dot-com boom.

Find opportunities

With great change, comes great opportunities.

“We are collectively the path to recovery. What you are doing will create more employment, GDP growth, solutions to important problems. You are all part of the solution.”

With events, meetings, conferences, and travel now mostly canceled, it’s an opportune time to build and get things done. Book virtual meetings now. Use video conferencing to tap into people in international markets.

Globally, companies and decision-makers are being forced to make deals and do business over video conferencing, this is a great opportunity to reach customers everywhere and close deals faster from home with no travel costs. Similarly, some people who are usually out of reach may now have more time on their hands because they are at home. Try your luck and aim high.

With softening sales, many large incumbents may start to pull their online ads. This means lower prices to secure prime advertising real estate. This might be a good time to ramp up your marketing efforts at lower costs. Make sure you’re keeping an eye on this change, and only invest when it’s feasible for the business to do so.

There are also interesting opportunities for attracting investment right now. “Over 2018 and 2019, VCs raised a record amount ($100bn raised),” said Magnus. “Only a portion of this capital has been deployed, so there’s a tremendous amount of funds available right now.”

VCs are still investing. So, if you’re currently fundraising, try to close the deal as soon as possible. Globally, some valuations have been slightly lowered, but that’s not to say it’s the case everywhere. If you are at this stage, think about whether it’s wiser to take the deal at a lower (but reasonable) valuation in order to get cash in the bank.

Be a leader

Being a good leader in times of crisis is more defining that being a good leader in almost any other scenario. This is the time your values stand out and you show who you truly are.

Right now, everyone is impacted by the virus in one way or another. Make sure you’re being empathetic to your team, stakeholders, and customers. Listen, and be transparent. Overcommunicate. Do what you can to be extra helpful.

Behind the scenes, focus on what keeps the engine running. What are the essential parts that have to be done versus the “nice to haves?” Be clear on intentions and actions. Try to remain positive and uplifting. Take care of yourself and your team, support your teams with kids, and check in on each other.

“What you’re doing is so important right now. Now is the time to create growth, new employment opportunities, and solve the world’s largest problems.

“If you look at the companies that came out after a crisis they are some of the biggest companies right now. That’s the way forward. That’s how we all come through this together, stronger.”

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This article was written by Sarah Kimmorley, Director of Communication for Antler Australia and Magnus Grimeland, Antler CEO.

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